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Triple Play: Horse Racing’s Triple Crown Venues All Bracing for Renovation

27 Aug, 2021

By: Michael Popke

The signature drinks. The hats. The horses. The apparently overwhelming need for renovation. For likely the first time in history, all three venues that host horse racing’s Triple Crown - the Preakness (Pimlico), Kentucky Derby (Churchill Downs) and Belmont Stakes Crown (Belmont Park) - are undergoing or planning renovations at the same time. Here’s what we know about each of the projects.

• Churchill Downs Racetrack (Louisville, Kentucky)

The home of the Kentucky Derby announced three major multi-year capital investments in late July to complement a $10 million turf course replacement project that is already underway. It will widen the running surface and accommodate more turf racing events throughout the year, and it is slated for completion by May 2022, according to racetrack officials.

The fittingly named Homestretch Club, also set to open by May 2022, will be an interior premium hospitality space adjacent to the Twin Spires along the track’s homestretch. The $45 million project will convert what is currently outdoor bleacher seating next to the Winner’s Circle Suites and below the Jockey Club Suites into three seating options — trackside lounges, terraced dining tables and cushioned stadium seats — with all-inclusive amenities. Ticketed guests in the Homestretch Club will have access to 18,600 square feet of space in a reimagined, high-end air-conditioned club atmosphere, where they can place bets and partake in all-inclusive food and beverage offerings. This premium hospitality space, accented by a grand staircase and a 100-foot-long bar, also will be available for special events.

The Turn 1 Experience, meanwhile, will introduce permanent all-inclusive stadium seats with exclusive views of the Kentucky Derby walkover and the picturesque first turn framed by the Twin Spires. This $90 million project will upgrade and expand what is currently 3,400 temporary Oaks and Derby seats to 5,100 all-inclusive permanent stadium seats with significantly improved amenities. The permanent construction also will add a climate-controlled hospitality venue below the new stadium seats that will serve as premium seating for up to 2,000 guests with access to an adjacent trackside reserved viewing terrace.

All told, the Turn 1 Experience, slated for completion in 2023, will include 7,100 all-inclusive seats, which is 3,700 more reserved seats than were previously available in this area.

Finally, the Paddock Area Redesign is in the early design stage and will include new seating and reduce congestion through the Paddock and Plaza area. It is expected to be completed in time for the running of the 150th Kentucky Derby in May 2024.

“The upgrades we plan to introduce are designed to ensure that Churchill Downs remains the premier racing destination for generations to come,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive officer of Churchill Downs Inc., said in a statement.

• Pimlico Race Course (Baltimore, Maryland)

Venue issues have long plagued Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes. In fact, Baltimore officials have feared losing the Preakness for years because of Pimlico’s “deferred maintenance” — in the words of Craig Fravel, chief executive officer of 1/ST Racing, a division of The Stronach Group, which is the parent company of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and its sister track, Laurel Park. Walls are crumbling, ceilings leak and the effectiveness of such basic functions as electricity and plumbing can be iffy.

Yet the launch of $400 million redevelopment plan for both Pimlico and Laurel Park in Laurel “promises not just to keep the Preakness in Baltimore, but also to revitalize impoverished parts of Pimlico’s surrounding neighborhoods,” according to The Washington Post. Most of the funding will be from the issuance of bonds, thanks to the Maryland General Assembly’s passage of the Racing and Community Development Act of 2020.

As The Post detailed:  

Under the plan, the Stronach Group will turn Pimlico over to the city. Its clubhouse and grandstand will be demolished and the racetrack rotated 30 degrees to free up parcels to sell for other development. A new clubhouse and event center will be erected, but horse training and stable operations will be consolidated at Laurel Park.

All racing will move to Laurel, except for a short spring meet in Baltimore that will include the Preakness, turning it into something of a pop-up event, albeit a huge one with a worldwide audience. Extra seating, tents and other equipment will be moved onto the site for the festivities, and removed afterward, with Pimlico undergoing various reconfigurations to host other events the rest of the year.

The capacity to accommodate other events could lead to Pimlico hosting more sports tourism, as SDMreported in 2019.

Architectural firms were selected in February and the design process is underway.

Belmont Park (Elmont, New York)

The track at the home of the Belmont Stakes (the final race of the Triple Crown) has not been renovated since 1968, and as the Long Island Herald recently noted, officials at the nonprofit New York Racing Association (which operates Belmont Park) have discussed potential improvements with local elected leaders in recent months.

Such updates include converting the 45-acre infield into a more attractive community park, winterizing the track to make it usable for more months of the year and reducing the size of the grandstand.

“The time has come to modernize the facility,” Patrick McKenna, NYRA’s communications director, told the newspaper in March.

“Horseracing officials have previously discussed other options to make Belmont more attractive to fans, with NYRA officials sending select fans a survey in October 2019 to gauge interest in proposed new eateries and seating arrangements at the park,” the paper added. “Among the proposals fans were asked to vote on were renovations of the backyard picnic area, rooftop access, access to the infield on race days, a new social patio and luxury suites. Each option would increase the price of a ticket to the park’s showcase event, the Belmont Stakes. Those discussions, however, were derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, and … talks have resumed only recently.”

The State of New York also is in the midst of a$1.3 billion Belmont Park redevelopment project, which includes a 19,000-seat arena to replace the nearly 50-year-old Nassau Coliseum for the NHL’s New York Islanders, as well as a new retail and entertainment complex and hotel.

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